Monsters, Inc. is a science fiction film.
There, I said it.
I’m sure that it would come as no surprise if I called Monsters, Inc. one of the best children’s films ever made, or one of the best animated films, or best Disney films, or one of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments.
But a science fiction film?
Now, the idea of Pixar making a science fiction film is hardly absurd in itself, as they made Wall-E seven years later. I would even argue that that was one of the best SF films of the Nothings. But Monsters, Inc.?
Perhaps it would help, however, if we shifted our point of view just a little and use the word in an older sense, closer to what is now called Speculative Fiction.
I”ll confess that most of the SF I’ve read has been from the Fifties and Sixties: the great stories of this era would take an interesting idea — whether the artistic abilities of an alien whose vision was radically different from ours, or a planet whose atmosphere turned to a liquid at night, or a once in thousands of years multiple eclipse that left a world in total darkness — and then try to apply this idea in an imagined world. A lot of these stories have glaring scientific problems — or, like Asimov’s Three Laws, aren’t strictly speaking scientific — but they are often far more entertaining than much of our modern SF which seems to have lost its sense of child-like wonder. And, one should note, that if we are talking about an alternate universe, as in many of these stories, even the basic rules of physics can be re-written.
But what distinguished the best of these stories was their sense of fairplay, and the fact that they approached these ideas logically and worked them out in a rational way.
And this is something that Monsters, Inc. undoubtedly does.
Here we have a fairly basic notion — that the Monster World is powered by children’s screams — and it is worked out in logical detail how such a world might function. The scare factory itself is based on certain imagined technologies, like the doors which open into the alternate, child-containing universe or the scream containment bottles, but they are used in a logical and consistent way. There is, effectively, a Monster physics at work, and their world has fundamental constraints that do not allow the characters to do anything they want. Yeah, we know some of the constraints are there to provide plot points, but then, that was true of some of those old SF stories, when you come right down to it.
This is one of the most engaging and charming films Pixar ever made. John Goodman and Billy Crystal make a perfect team (even though Mike is supposedly the smart, talented one, it’s interesting to note that Sully ultimately comes up with all the good ideas!), and their performance of the theme song over the end credits is superlative. Not, I should note, because either one is a great singer, but because, in the tradition of the great Hollywood musicals, they are talented actors giving us a performance, rather than merely singing a song. It’s something all too rare in our age of overly produced and overly perfect music, and it brings to mind Crosby and Hope in the old Road pictures.
One might also note that this one marked one of the most daring experiments in Pixar’s history, when they chose to do something that was thought impossible at the time — and for one of the main characters. Sully’s thick, shaggy coat of fur with its multicolored patches was a bold and risky move, particularly as we see so much of it — and if you remember that an early CGI developer once suggested that we might be able to animate human beings, as long as they were naked and bald! .
However, as good as this film is, for its cast, crew and bleeding edge technology, a large part of its success is because of the solidity of their creation, the Monster world. It is the firm foundation on which this fantastic story rests, and its logical and reasonable “physics” make that fantasy world that much more real.
Which is what distinguished the best of SF in its Golden Age.
So, yes. Monsters, Inc. is Science Fiction.
And one of better SF films, at that.
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